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Jonathan Guevara

URBS 420: Perspectives on Urban Poverty Final Exam

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Part I: The
Cultural Turn in Poverty Knowledge: 1930-50 (Section A and B)

Alice O’Connor claims that the Great
Depression spawned a “cultural turn” in poverty knowledge. During the 1930’s
and 40’s, we see an obsession with culture emerge through which reformers made
a case for social engineering on the basis that if these cultural lags were not
fixed, it would create a threat to democracy. Why was this era so important?
Research during this era changed racial theory and had long lasting implications
on the poverty debate. The shattering of once-dominant theories of racial
inferiority and the uplifting of the theory that a cultural lag exists as a reflection
of social, environmental, and historical experience shook race theory research This
provided liberals with a justification for racial assimilation. Unlike biology,
culture can change. Therefore, when closing the gaps on this cultural lag, a
poor person was fully capable of assimilating into the modern lifestyle.

In this essay, I will discuss three
texts that O’Connor refers to in Chapter 3 in her book Poverty Knowledge. These three texts are Frazier’s “The Negro
Family in Chicago,” (1922) Drake and Clayton’s “Black Metropolis” (1945), and
Myrdal’s “American Dilemma” (1944)
and they represent the outpouring of research, led by black sociologists that
contributed to the cultural turn, hoping that it would drive the argument to
reduce inequality. The turn from biological to the cultural debate opens up the
doors for assimilation as the solution where a person has the possibility of
becoming a “middle class person.” The say that there is a lag means that there
is a way to bridge that lag. However, as O’Connor discusses, this has stakes or
a “legacy” that becomes evident in poverty knowledge later in the century
through topics of white pathology, the cultural lag (and how to reverse it),
and the liberal orthodoxy. Social scientists saw black poverty as a cultural
pathology meaning that “black culture” was undesirable or the wrong side of the
bridge. “White pathology,” or the cycle of white people systematically cycling
their power, existed as much as “black pathology” but was seen as the norm and
mainstream or the “better” side of the bridge.

E. Franklin Frazier’s “the Negro
Family in Chicago” analyzed “Negro matriarchy” as a response to slavery and discrimination
against black men in the labor market and a feature of the black lower-class
culture of poverty. Frazier then saw “black culture” as different from African
cultural inheritance because “family disorganization” playing an independent
role in perpetuating poverty. He then then called for assimilation into “white
American culture” as the solution. He uses the assimilation narrative as a way
of achieving social mobility. In his study he gives an example of blacks paying
dues to become “civilized.” This ignores structural factors such as racism and
makes the solution assimilating into a white society.

Research by St. Clair Drake and Horace
R. Clayton in “Black Metropolis” (1945) shifts from the “immigrant line” to the
“color line.” It emphasizes that the ghetto is not natural but comes from
discriminatory policies. They acknowledge the various factors that produce poverty
such as structural factors but also behaviors. However, Drake and Cayton
ultimately call for the transformation of the political economy as a solution.

In “An American Dilemma” (1944),
Gunmar Myrdal linked black lower-class pathology to the pathology of white
racism. He used a “vicious circle” theory stating that oppression had left black
people to low educational standards which white people benefitted off. Poverty
bred poverty. Myrdal argued that change in any one of three causals would bring
change in the other two. However, this reinforced the norm and mainstream white
culture, making the solution assimilation.

The cultural turn left a legacy for
future poverty debate. Oscar Lewis’ “Culture of Poverty” (1966) came soon
afterward. Research methods started tracing all social issues to individual
behavior which only pathologized the poor and the ones being studied. Research
in it of itself created a lens which represented the norm, mainstream culture,
that the poor were expected to assimilate into. Soon after, the turn for
neoliberalism shrunk the welfare state to the point where poverty knowledge was
against food stamps. The emphasis on culture also made issues so based on
individual behavior that the structural foundation to these inequalities were
being ignored. The political right benefited off the cultural pathologization
of the black and poor. The war on poverty emerged and continues to pathologize
the poor until this day. The cultural turn only created a norm, the liberal
orthodoxy, the parent figure, that was supposed to help those who weren’t the
“norm” yet. Along with the war on poverty came stigma and the failure to truly
reduce structural inequality because of the emphasis that the market can get
alleviate poverty within itself. Economics became the warrior against poverty
and liberals jumped into the bandwagon of neoliberalism. They believed that by
investing in human capital and using markets as the solution, everyone would
benefit. This opened the opportunity for corporate structures to get tax cuts
to “drive social investment.”

The cultural turn led to a series of
events that eventually only hurt the poor and made their state of poverty a
result of their own actions. By making it an argument of culture, sociologists
created a bridge where one side represented the poor and the other side
represented the mainstream white family. By doing this, and focusing on
individual behavior, researchers made the well-off lifestyle a norm and
succeeding a matter of assimilating. This reduced the emphasis on structural
inequality and true poverty alleviation. This legacy lives today as research
still pathologizes the poor and can’t seem to focus on poverty instead of the
poor.

References

O’Connor,
Alice. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science,
Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-      Century
U.S. History. Princeton University Press, 2009.

 

 

Part II – Ethnographic strategies for the
crisis in representation

Ethnographic work’s purpose is to allow a researcher to live what his or
her subjects are living. It is the way being able to understand something
because one lives it. In theory, a researcher’s bias is reduced when using
ethnographic work because his judgements are not based on his experiences but
what he sees, hears, smells, etc. Its purpose is to include subjects and
represent them in research. Its purpose is to shed light on poverty and open up
opportunities for better welfare policies that can help the poor. The issues at
stake are well mapped out by the culture-of-poverty debates stemming from the
1960’s, the structure/agency debates in anthropology across the 1980’s, and the
more recent polemics concerning the complicity of urban ethnography with the
policies of neoliberal state-building across the “regressive 1990’s.” There are
serious issues of power related to the task of rendering and enumerating the
urban poor as legible, visible, knowable. The stakes involved with this task
have led many ethnographers to think carefully about how to outmaneuver the
trappings of questions related to stigma, race, agency, and structure when
dealing with poverty and poor people as ethnographic objects.

However, ethnographic work has its traps. Although it attempts to avoid
traps of misrepresentation, it can’t. A researcher has a different pair of lens
through which he or she looks through and thinks about different experiences. A
researcher has to be qualified to be a researcher, putting them in a power
position compared to the subjects being studied as poor people are not capable
of conducting this research.

This paper will analyze three books using
ethnographic research: Philippe Bourgois’ book, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Matthew Desmond’s
Evicted, and Laurence Ralph’s Renegade Dreams. It will analyze how
each author explains, strategizes, and methodically and theoretically works to
content with structure and agency. We will be able to see how each author
juggles the task of not falling into the research traps but still persuading
its audience of the argument that structural forces drive these poor
communities.

Bourgois starts off his book by saying that
he never expected to do crack in his life. He goes on to say that this,
however, that doing crack is a symptom of a structural problem where the poor
are forced to work in the uncensored underground to survive. They are
discriminated against in the workforce and this drives them to finding other
sources of work, many times illegal. Although, Bourgois agrees that much
research has pathologized the poor throughout time, he justifies his research
by saying that not representing the poor will make him complicit with
oppression (Bourgois 12). According to him, ethnographic work is the only way
to get true and thoughtful answers from poor people. Accordingly, Bourgois
spent hundreds of nights in crack houses making friends with drug dealers and watching
them get high all the time. He acknowledges that although his work is
ethnographic, the interpretations are a result of how he analyzes their
statements and he has the complete power to manipulate this. He decides what
goes in his book and what does not. As a result of the social scientists who
fear patholgizing the poor, Bourgois argues that research has not truly
represented the poor because of this fear of making them look bad. He, however,
argues that he is just trying to convey the individual experiences of social
structural oppression. Although he claims to not know how to resolve the
structure vs agency debate he believes it is only right to document the true
horrors of poverty.          

In his book, Bourgois documents horrible
instances of rape, violence, and unfortunate events that occur as a result of
living in poverty. He focuses on showing that although most characters are drug
addicts, it is a symptom of poverty. However, Bourgois fails to acknowledge the
way in which his description of the characters may hurt them. How will someone
get a job if all they do is crack all day? The traps of the structure vs agency
debate always prevail.

In
Evicted, Matt Desmond focuses less on the violence that occurs amongst
members he interacts with but instead focuses on the experiences of the
eviction process of families and the relationships that exist between the
landlord and the evicted. He sheds light on the housing market and the
potential changes that could be made to help tenants. He sheds light on how
miscommunication leads to eviction even when families are doing all they can do
to survive. Matt Desmond really focuses on documenting the pre and post eviction
process itself instead of the people being evicted. However, his policy
proposals ignore the structural forces that cycle poverty in the first place
such as low homeownership tracing back to racist housing bills in the mid
1900s.

In his book, Matt Desmond talks about his
childhood. His family was not wealthy but they weren’t very poor either. When
he got to college, he realized that the poor were always looked at in two ways:
the structural way and the individual way. Liberals preferred the first, while
conservatives the second. Matt Desmond’s purpose was to research poverty by
observing the relationship between the rich and the poor. This method
acknowledges the structural forces that play into the oppressive cycle present
in cities and processes such as eviction while not blaming the poor. However,
what still occurs is that this relationship still assumes that the better off
people are the ones benefitting off the cycle and if one wants to be on the
better side, they must become the better off. Even when research focuses on
poverty, instead of the poor, the lens by which the research is being created
are still biased and privileged. The research ties poverty, the rich, and the
poor to capitalism and survival in the United States.

Laurence Ralph takes a very different pathway
in his book Renegade Dreams by
focusing on ways that his characters in Chicago deal with pain or injury and
use it to survive. It is a sad account, watching characters try to achieve
their dreams but going to prison instead. His book also shines light on the
“white” savior that comes to save people in poverty. It is a book focused on
the people and their suffering and showing that it’s not really their fault.

Ethnographic work can take many different
routes. Bourgois’s book shines light on the structural forces affecting Puerto
Ricans in Harlem. However, it’s hard to persuade people of these forces when
the violence that occurs prevents people from siding with the poor. In
Desmond’s book, he does a good job at studying poverty and not the poor. Ralph
does a great job at getting into the lives of individuals and showing us how
much they struggle through and how hard they may work to get out just to end up
in prison. These different angles of poverty knowledge are all necessary to understand
the complexities of poverty. The research method has it traps but it also achieves
the goal of representing the poor by giving them a voice. Unfortunately, that
voice depends of the researchers themselves and what they decide to publish.

The poor are voiceless and their representation is just a privilege of those
who can represent them. The purpose of research may be to simply observe and
record all that is occurring in our world. However, it is driven by money that
claims to be unbiased but that’s not a reality. Researchers, with good
intentions, fall into traps and their work is manipulated. Their work is
praised anyway and they go on and live their lives. However, the poor continue
stuck.  

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